James Madison on the Constitution and the Bill of Rights

By Robert J. Morgan | Go to book overview

Chapter I
To Improve and Perpetuate the Union

Madison provided us with an unmistakable key to understanding his thought and actions as a constitutional reformer, when he said that the rights of man are the foundation of just governments, but mankind had deduced only defective superstructures of government as of 1776. Nature had given Americans their independence and a rich land with the obligation to provide the world with a model of free government and a productive people raising the standards of material and moral well-being for the progressive betterment of the human race. Unfortunately, in their first attempt they created a government resting on "fallacious principles..." A weak government and quarreling factions threatened the success of this experiment. Therefore, the task in hand by 1787 was "to improve and perpetuate the union" by resting well-crafted institutions on sound political and constitutional principles. 1


THE GIFT OF NATURE

When Madison became a member of the Revolutionary Congress in 1779, he had a clear understanding of the ethical, political, and constitutional issues which justified American independence. He expounded them in a notable state paper adopted by Congress in 1780 and continued to develop their full implications thereafter to strengthen the American claim to unhindered development and political incorporation of the territory ceded by Britain in 1783. The American claim to free navigation of the Mississippi River provided the occasion for his exposition, and the first ground on which he rested it is a familiar one: Americans had never explicitly consented to be ruled according to the terms of an imperial constitution as it was defined by the British government. The second basis of the American claim is not familiar and it is worthy of special note because of its great importance in Madison's conception of the destiny of the American Republic. The exercise of power is legitimate only if it is used for the benefit of those "from whom it is derived and over whom [it is] exercised." These two precepts in combination justified the American claim to all of the territory and rights pertaining to them of the former British sovereign. The rights claimed did not devolve on the United States on any of the grounds recognized by the law of nations such as priority of discovery, occupancy, or conquest. American title was secured by the "revolution"

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James Madison on the Constitution and the Bill of Rights
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Recent Titles in Contributions in Legal Studies ii
  • Title Page iii
  • Contents vii
  • Acknowledgments ix
  • Introduction xi
  • Notes xvii
  • Part I - Power 1
  • Chapter 1 - To Improve and Perpetuate the Union 3
  • Notes 28
  • Chapter 2 - A Proper Energy in the Executive 31
  • Notes 51
  • Chapter 3 - The True Principles of Republican Government 55
  • Notes 79
  • Chapter 4 - Supporting and Restraining the Executive 83
  • Notes 111
  • Part II - Rights 115
  • Chapter 5 - Political Liberty 117
  • Notes 128
  • Chapter 6 - A Few Obvious Truths 131
  • Notes 159
  • Chapter 7 - The Very Essence of Free and Responsible Government 163
  • Notes 185
  • Chapter 8 - The Framers' Muse 189
  • Notes 202
  • Selected Bibliography 205
  • Index 213
  • About the Author 219
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